My memories of my great grandmother are mostly limited to ideas and feelings. There are photographs to prove that I met her, but really I know very little about her.
I know that she was on the famous Orphan Train as a child. I also know that she had what I consider to be a lot of children; here she is with them in a photograph made by my great grandfather. Grandma (Joan, on the end, at 10 years old) always liked to tell me how my great aunt Rosemary was a "change of life baby." Today, Joan and Rosemary are the only people in the picture who are still living.
The one concrete memory I have of this great lady is walking through a nursing home holding my Grandma's hand, going into a room there with an empty bed, to pick up her things. Some of these things - either after that day or possibly before - were always carefully laid out on the dresser in one of the bedrooms at the house on Skyline Drive. Given that it was known as "Grandma Cotter's Room," she must have stayed there for a while. The relics of her life, a beautiful hairbrush, comb, and mirror, were all that physically remained, but when I would sneak into the room alone and stand over them, I would wonder about the woman who had passed, and sense her. (My mother's mother, my Grand-mère, claimed to have the Scottish fey, and suspected it had passed to me, but I never have lent much credence to that.)
When I was older, my parents told me how painful the decision was for Grandma and her sister to place their mother in the home; she was 95 when she passed away. And now, so many years later, her daughter, my own beloved grandmother, has reached the age of 98 and resides in a nursing home. Her life, once so gigantic that I swore she knew every single person in town, has become very, very small, and quiet.
I'm not sure what happened to Grandma Cotter's vanity set. My niece inherited the furniture from the bedroom. In going through the contents of the family archive, I discovered that I am now in possessions of other relics from her life, ones that I had not seen before.
What moved me the most, more than these objects - a hair comb, some silver cuffs - is what else my Grandma saved. Cards: condolence cards, and the sentiments that came with every single floral delivery that she received after her mother's death.
I have only seen my grandmother cry once, and that was when we visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC in 2009. Looking at these cards, however, brings to mind words about the Virgin Mary, who my Grandma loves dearly "but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." Memory lines cut deep. May the quiet strength of the women in my family run through me, and power me through the trying days of my own life.